Just vans this week but one of those took me to Le Mans and back for the second time in seven days! I didn’t want to give “my” trusty Peugeot Boxer back after our adventures together:-
Sunday to Tuesday: Peugeot Boxer (very)LWB 2.2 HDi (130hp), Leicester to Le Mans to Leicester to Aston Martin, Gaydon to Rugby where it was bye bye Boxer
Thursday: Fiat Doblo van 1.3TD, West Bromwich to Lewes, East Sussex
Never underestimate a modern vehicle. The prospect of driving almost 200 miles in a dull looking van with a silly name and only a 1248cc engine would be unthinkable to some. And this was a very basic van – no aircon and it had wigglesticks to manually adjust the wing mirrors (which is quite rare these days). But myself and two colleagues all agreed that our Fiat Doblos dobbled along surprisingly well. No problem at all sitting reasonably quietly and comfortably at 70mph on all five motorways between the West Midlands and Lewes on the south coast. When we collected the Doblos, all three had zero miles on the clock – first time I have ever come across that. Bizarrely, all three of us arrived at our destination at more or less the same time having followed exactly the same route but one van had six fewer miles on the clock. I forgot to ask my colleague whether or not he had driven the last three miles backwards (although I suspect it’s a myth that the mileage goes down when you reverse in a modern vehicle).
I missed a trick in last week’s post about my trip to Le Mans. In one breath I mentioned a well-known celebrity baker and in another, Harry Potter’s magic baguettes. Why didn’t I connect the two? They don’t call me Flash for nothing. What a great technical challenge that would be in the next series of the Great British Bake Off!! If there is enough time between the commercials, the contestants would each be required to bake three magic baguettes – one with a Phoenix feather in (Harry’s), one with a dragon heartstring (Hermione’s) and one with a unicorn tail hair (Ron’s). The contestants would not be permitted to use yeast. Instead, they would each be given a magic baguette baked earlier by Paul Hollywood. With this, they would attempt to get the correct rise on their own baguettes by invoking the Wingardium Leviosa spell.
Judging would be based not only on the usual criteria such as texture, taste and the “bake” but also the effectiveness of each magic baguette at some popular spells, e.g. ALOHOMORA! (to open an oven door), ENGORGIO! (to make the baguettes twice their original size) and EXPECTO PATRONUM! (to conjure up a Patronus in the form of Mary Berry). Extra points would be awarded to the contestant who is able to magic GBBO back onto the BBC and get the real Mary Berry back.
My second trip to Le Mans went smoothly apart from the return trip through the Channel Tunnel. Coming back the day after the end of the 24 hour race, I joined a constant stream of British cars on the autoroute heading for the Channel crossings. In fact it was a bit of a mobile motor show. Various exotic cars, sports cars, classic cars, boy racer mobiles and a Honda Jazz from Chipping Sodbury. Result: chaos at the Tunnel but I did get a nice text from Eurotunnel apologising for the delay.
These two trips to Le Mans were my first experiences of using the Channel Tunnel. Apart from that last return leg, it was fast and efficient but if you are driving long distances either side of the Channel, there is still a strong argument for the ferry. Especially on that last crossing, I would have been glad of a decent break, a hearty meal and the opportunity to stretch my legs properly whilst breathing fresh sea air. Instead, I was stuck inside a tin box with air of dubious quality and had to stop for a break on the motorway after leaving the train anyway, thus negating some of the time saving (the ferry crossing takes about 55 minutes longer than the train). Eurotunnel definitely has its merits but the ferry does too!
Just so you know, the hake with egg sauce is nothing to do with China – it’s Norwegian (read on, all will become clear). In my old life when I did serious work, I often had to travel to Norway on business – usually Bergen or Stavanger and once to Oslo. A beautiful country, as we found out in 2005 on a family holiday in our motor caravan. On one business trip to Bergen, I had a particularly memorable and tasty meal. The starter was “creamed reindeer on toast”. This sounds like a colloquial description of a reindeer after an unfortunate coming together with a large truck on a quiet Norwegian road but it was absolutely delicious. I wasn’t sure what to expect – would it involve a very large, reindeer-sized slice of toast? Actually, no. It was about the size of a Ritz cracker and topped with finely chopped reindeer meat (don’t worry children, no sign of any red nose) in a creamy sauce which may have involved some brandy. Yum!
I was very intrigued by a main dish on the menu described as “haddock with egg sauce”. What on earth is egg sauce? Only one way to find out. Actually, there’s two ways – I could have asked the waiter but my Norwegian wasn’t up to it (let’s gloss over the fact that the waiter, like most Norwegians, spoke excellent English). So, I ordered the haddock with both egg sauce and high expectations. Perhaps egg sauce is a Norwegian variation of Hollandaise sauce? Maybe with grated troll for true local flavour? The dish duly arrived complete with the eagerly anticipated sauce which was ….(drum roll)…. crumbled up hard-boiled egg!
HOWEVER, this was absolutely fine because a) I like hard-boiled egg and b) there is no better place in the world to get really fresh fish than Norway and, in particular, Bergen. This dish was all about simplicity in order to highlight the high quality and freshness of the main ingredient and I can testify that it did just that. By the way, if you are ever in Bergen, make sure you visit the fish market – it’s fascinating just to wander round. Then you can visit Bryggen, the famous old wooden wharf and UNESCO world heritage site, go up a cable car or funicular railway (Bergen is known as the city of seven mountains), go to the excellent aquarium or on a “Norway in a Nutshell” day trip down stunning fjords and up a spectacular mountain railway in Flam. Bit of a boring place really.
A couple of weeks ago, our local supermarket had some fresh thick, chunky looking hake fillets – along with haddock, this is another member of the cod family. Supermarket? OK, not a patch on what you could get in Bergen but they looked the part. So, for a quick midweek meal I cooked hake with egg sauce and mustard mash. Cooking the whole meal took as long as it takes to make mashed potato. We have a two tier steamer so I was able to steam both the fish and vegetables above the pan in which the spuds were bubbling away. Here’s what I did for two of us:-
Peeled and chopped potatoes and put on to boil.
Put one egg on to boil, simmered for about 8 mins once it had come to the boil.
After potatoes had been boiling for about five minutes, I put the fish on to steam above them.
About five minutes later, put vegetables on to steam above potatoes and fish.
I steamed the fish for about 10 minutes. The time needed depends on thickness – steam until opaque, the fish will flake (test the fillet you will serve to yourself and keep your guests’ fish intact!!) and it’s hot in the middle (skewer/burnt lip test).
When cooked put the fish on a warm plate in warm oven.
Rinse the hard-boiled egg once in cold water so shell is cool enough to handle but egg will still be warm. Peel and crumble the egg. Maybe mash with a fork or cheat like I did and put through an egg slicer twice – lengthways then sideways (or vice versa if it’s Tuesday).
Toss the egg in a some melted butter and add some finely chopped, fresh parsley (this may be my own tweak – can’t remember if the Norwegian version included this).
When the potatoes and veg are ready, mashed the potatoes with milk and lots of butter. You need lots of butter because, despite the title of this fish dish, there is no real sauce so the potatoes would otherwise be rather dry. I like lots of freshly ground black pepper in mash too.
Add wholegrain mustard to the mash and mix in. You can add the mustard bit by bit (i.e. teaspoonful by teaspoonful, not grain by grain) until you get the strength of mustard taste that suits you.
You can of course try a different type of fish (er, haddock?!). If you don’t have a steamer, try poaching the fish or wrapping in foil and baking in the oven. Personally, I don’t think this dish would work with grilled fish because I think it calls for the really pure taste of steamed or poached fish. However, there is no law…..
On the subject of egg slicers, next time you have a Chinese take-away, try placing one of your children or the butler in the corner of the room and give them an egg slicer. Ask them to pluck the strings at random and fairly slowly. They can also throw in the occasional strum. This produces a remarkably authentic oriental sound and will provide an atmospheric aural backdrop to your sweet and sour. Better still, if you have one of those folding oriental screens, place child/butler behind that.
Using an egg slicer as a musical instrument is not my idea. It is a little known fact that both Eric Clapton and the Who’s Pete Townshend cut their musical teeth on the family’s egg slicers on the path to becoming guitar legends and before they could afford actual guitars. Despite an egg slicer’s naturally oriental tone, both Eric and Pete were able to wring convincing bluesy sounds from their improvised musical instruments. Eric progressed more quickly because Pete kept smashing up his family’s egg slicers. His progress was therefore intermittent because he was forced to save up his pocket money in between purchasing replacements. On the other side of the Atlantic, a young Robert Zimmerman (later to become Bob Dylan) also learnt his trade using an egg slicer. Some say this inspired his 1969 hit, Lay Lady Lay.
And finally (phew!), another true fact but a slightly embarrassing one – although pertinent since I have been to France twice in the last week. My name, Colin (a diminutive of Nicholas supposedly), is also a French word. It means hake! My old proper job was quite international and my French colleagues were always polite enough to not mention this, let alone titter when I was introduced. They would just stand there silently opening and closing their mouth, I assume because they were astonished at meeting someone named after a fish.
I had no time to do a mid-week post this week because I was packed off on my longest driving job yet. Aston Martin needed some specialist equipment taking to Le Mans for the famous 24 hour race this weekend so, on Tuesday I picked up a hire van and trundled over to the Aston Martin factory in Gaydon, Warwickshire.
Upon arriving at Aston Martin’s VIP Reception (where else?), I had to sign a secrecy agreement at security before being allowed into Fortress Aston Martin. So, what was this specialist equipment that warranted such measures? I probably shouldn’t say, but here goes ….. parasols, chairs, bedding, tableware (mostly IKEA – aargh!), candles, framed photos, a gazebo and a portable bar!! Crucial to the team’s efforts at the forthcoming endurance race. Aston Martin rent a gîte near the famous Circuit de la Sarthe every year in order to entertain guests. I have good reason to believe that these guests may have included a well-known celebrity baker (and part-time racing driver who has competed at Le Mans in an Aston Martin in the past).
Having loaded up this vital gear on to the van, I set off on my epic journey. Fortunately, the van (a very long Peugeot Boxer) had air conditioning, sat nav, cruise control and an adjustable lumber support. What could be better for a long journey?
By coincidence, I had some appropriate reading material for the trip because I’m part way through Harry Potter et l’Ordre du Phénix. I’m sure even non-linguists can work out what that is in English. A few months ago, I set myself the challenge of re-reading the Harry Potter books in French – I’m on the fifth book and thoroughly enjoying it. It does help that I have read them all in English and seen the films (albeit a long time ago)! The odd thing with the French versions is that some of the names have been changed. For instance, Hogwarts is “Poudlard”, Muggles are “Moldus” and the tragic Professor Snape has been renamed “Professeur Rogue”. I have learnt some new vocabulary which I am sure will come in useful on a trip to France one day (but not this week). So, for example, should I ever see un loup-garou (werewolf) and une licorne (unicorn) racing each other down the autoroute on their Nimbus 2000s, I will be able to report it to the local gendarmes with confidence that they will understand. Amusingly (to me anyway), the French for magic wand is “la baguette magique”. Now this just conjures(!) up an image, doesn’t it? Harry, Ron and Hermione doing battle with Lord Voldemort brandishing French loaves of bread, the intrepid young wizards trying to turn He Who Must Not Be Named into French toast and vice-versa. Out of interest, I looked up the Italian and German for magic wand: la ciabatta magica and der magische Pumpernickel.
Enchanted with the idea that French bread has magical properties, I thought about going into a boulangerie and buying my own magic baguette. Then if the van broke down, a quick REPARO! would solve that problem. If I encountered any officious gendarmes or customs officers, they could be transfigured into frogs (what else?!). And best of all: middle lane hoggers – EXPULSO! and they would be blown out of the way. In the end I decided not to because I wasn’t sure if I could claim for a magic baguette on my expenses.
Talking off middle lane hoggers…. there weren’t any! Mainly because most French motorways don’t have a middle lane (what an obvious solution). They are however a delight to drive on. I left Calais early on Wednesday morning after a night in a hotel and absolutely breezed down to Le Mans without any traffic problems whatsoever – about 280 miles with a couple of short stops. There was hardly any traffic on the autoroutes and they have decent, smooth surfaces – not like some of our lumpy, bumpy, noisy concrete excuses in the U.K. But all this does come at a price. In tolls, it cost me EUR 58 each way between Calais and Le Mans.
Apart from a drive through Rouen, it was autoroute all the way to Le Mans. And unlike UK motorways where you often have an enclosed feeling, driving between two embankments, French autoroutes generally have a more open aspect allowing you sweeping views across the landscape. Another feature of the autoroutes which I like are the frequent large brown signs depicting features of the town or area that you are passing. Add to all this, two or three spectacular viaducts and all in all it was pretty good as motorway journeys go.
I arrived in the Le Mans area at about 12.30. I had been told by the good folk at Aston Martin (who were arriving later by plane and hire car) that the gîte they had rented was hard to find because it had no sign outside with its name. So I didn’t bother looking for it and just phoned Monsieur Le Owner who kindly said he would come and find me. I then followed him back to his gîte to see a large, clear sign at the entrance with the name on! It would have been dead easy to find had I just carried on up the road for half a mile or so. Monsieur le Owner must have thought I was un vrai imbécile (he may be right).
After unloading, I turned round and went straight back to Calais. No messing around, sight seeing or legendary three hour French lunch break. I was booked on a Eurotunnel train early the next morning, so it was easier to spend Wednesday night in Calais again and I arrived back there at about 8pm.
Throughout the journey the big Peugeot van performed superbly. It was relaxing and comfortable to drive, reinforcing my opinion that most modern vans, thanks to their seating position, are more comfortable than ANY car I have driven over long distances. Maybe I’m just a funny shape?! There may have been quicker ways to travel but by all accounts Floo Powder is very stressful. And judging by the spectacular amount of insects on the van’s windscreen, Heaven knows what state my glasses and teeth would have been in had I gone by broomstick (extra protein intake though!). Plus you couldn’t carry many parasols on a broomstick.
Next morning it was back to Blighty and the M20: noisy, bumpy concrete and three lanes full of traffic. Seemingly within minutes, I came across a major traffic jam between junctions 7 and 2 and had to cut across to the M2. Welcome home!
And guess what? I’m setting off tomorrow to do it all again!
Three long days working this week and a chance to get re-acquainted with Transit vans (its been a while since I drove the larger ones):-
Monday: Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI (125hp) DSG (auto), Kettering, Northants to Dereham, Norfolk
Wednesday: Ford Transit 350 (the big one!), Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire to Woodford Green, Essex
Friday: Ford Transit Custom (the “traditional” size Transit), Rotherham, South Yorkshire to Southampton
There was a comment in response to last week’s diary asking if I was going to review the BMW X5 40e plug-in hybrid (two of which I drove that week). It is, after all, an interesting car so here goes ….. well, from what I could tell, it was very nice! It pulled away satisfyingly on electric power only and stayed on electric until I had to accelerate up to 65/70mph on the motorway or dual carriageway (on each leg of my round trip that was only a few hundred yards from my starting point!). Everything I said about driving the Mercedes C-class plug-in hybrid on electric power applies here – eerie, silent, satisfying and, for me, still a fascinating novelty. When accelerating up to motorway speed, the two litre, turbocharged four cylinder petrol engine cut in without any fuss, the car felt quick (I have included some anorak data at the bottom of this post) and the eight speed automatic box was as smooth as frog’s fur. When cruising at motorway speed, the petrol engine was virtually silent, possibly because it was only ticking over at about 1500 to 1700 rpm so I assume the electric motor was helping. You do notice road noise but may be because the power unit is so quiet! Negotiating curves (a total of two roundabouts), the X5 felt as if it was quite nimble, certainly far more so than the lumbering Range Rover that I drove the following day. Inside, there was an upmarket and quality interior that you would expect from a £60k BMW and you would not be disappointed in terms of comfort. And that’s about it! Other than to say that the gentleman to whom I delivered the X5 loan car (I took his week-old X5 hybrid back to Leicester to have a small paint chip sorted) confirmed what I said about upmarket hybrids and tax in my Mercedes C-class post. His new hybrid X5 uses more fuel than his old diesel X5 – so it won’t save the planet – but it will save him over £400 per month in tax!
Sorry I can’t say much more about the X5 but I only drove each example about 35 short miles between Leicester to Kettering, almost entirely on motorway and dual carriageway. The only time I turned the steering wheel was when negotiating those two roundabouts (OK, I had to park them as well). Had the journey been any shorter I could probably have left the cars plugged in! Now my childish imagination starts to run riot. Suppose the X5 had one of those self-retracting cables like an old vacuum cleaner (and could reach from BMW Leicester to Kettering)! When I got to Kettering I could have rung up the BMW dealer, asked them to unplug the cable and give it a little tug (reminding them to let go sharpish). The plug and cable would then have raced off down the street like a demented snake (hopefully without BMW salesperson in tow) snapping at the heels of startled pedestrians who would leap out of the way with a shriek. Cars would have screeched to a halt at green lights as the snake hurtled through on red. Then it would have flown down the M1 and A14 passing all the other traffic and just a few seconds later it would have raced towards the X5 and disappeared into a recess in the bodywork. Before disappearing, the last couple of feet of cable would have flicked furiously up and down like the tongue of the aforementioned demented snake, just as if the car were vigorously sucking in the tail end of a strand of spaghetti. While standing nonchalantly checking the latest cricket scores on my phone, I would have casually closed a flap over the recess, wiped off any excess bolognese sauce and carried on with whatever. This is, of course, all fantasy but there are electric vehicles on our roads that do have cables long enough for their entire journey – they are called trams. Shame we abandoned them in the UK for decades before re-discovering the benefits. The new tram system in Nottingham, for example, is rather good. If you ever go to Nottingham, give them a try. You may have the privilege of travelling on the likes of Robin Hood, Torvill and Dean or England cricketer, Stuart Broad. (Sorry – I know I have some readers in Australia so mentioning Stuart Broad may be insensitive after what he did in the fourth test of the last Ashes series.)
If you are not convinced about trams, you need to visit the National Tramway Museum (https://www.tramway.co.uk/) in Crich, Derbyshire – it’s brilliant. If you are visiting Matlock or the south eastern side of the Peak District National park, you will not be far away. Please be assured I am not a tram spotter nor tram aficionado but my family and I have visited this place two or three times over the years and really enjoyed it. The museum is set in a period village where original buildings have been transported and re-built brick by brick, including an old pub. You can ride trams up and down a length of track (all day if you want – there’s no extra cost), peruse the splendid indoor exhibits, lose the kids in the outdoor or indoor play areas, try to lose them again in the woodland walk and sculpture trail and then eat and drink yourself silly. Here you are spoilt for choice – the period tea rooms, the pub, ice cream parlour or traditional sweet shop (or all of them if your diet is starting the next day). Or, you can take your own pork pie or corned beef sandwiches and enjoy the picnic area with views over the Amber Valley at the far end of the tram line.
We first went to the museum many years ago when our kids were very little. It was near Christmas and we had a hearty roast turkey lunch served in giant Yorkshire puddings. Then we met Santa riding on the tram but I must have been naughty because I don’t remember getting a present (the kids did though). The last time we went was four years ago and it was a 1940’s theme day. What a great atmosphere! Loads of people dressed up in period civvies or military uniforms. And you have to admit, the trams themselves – many of them brightly coloured and/or with acres of highly polished wood – do look rather magnificent.
ANORAK’S CORNER: BMW X5 xDrive40e M Sport – 0-60mph, 6.8 seconds; top speed, 130mph (limited to 75mph on electric only); total power (combined petrol engine & electric motor), 313hp; combined MPG, 83.1 (ha ha); range on electric-only, 19 miles.
I have driven a few upmarket cars recently but it’s good to get your feet back on the ground and drive something that most of us could actually afford. Amidst the doe-eyed automotive temptresses, sporty stallions and plush 4x4s, I had the pleasure of driving a Nissan Note for the first time – a little ray of cheap and cheerfulness on what started as a rainy day and then got better. (By the way, when I say “cheap”, I don’t mean “cheap and nasty”). Regardless of size, price and speed, I always look forward to driving a model of car for the first time. In addition, simple comfort, practicality and value for money impress me as much as anything else.
Put it this way – the world needs unsung heroes to keep it ticking along, like the postman, milkman, the kids’ sports coach, teachers and nurses all getting on with their jobs quietly and reliably and making life far better and easier for you and me. The car world is full of such unassuming characters, slaving away and serving their masters reliably and without complaining. OK, they may not be glamorous or do the job with much pizzazz but then pizzazz wasn’t on the spec when you bought the car soyou knew not to expect any. And, if it had been, you would have paid a lot more for it.
The Nissan Note falls into this unsung category. It is a car that wears sensible knickers, has never been on a Club 18-30 holiday nor even tasted an alcopop. And yes, before you all think I am in La-La Land, I do know that it is being discontinued! But please bear with. If you are on a tight budget and drawing up a short list of potential small car (or even family car) purchases, the Note may have slipped through the net. Buying a discontinued car might not be everyone’s cup of tea, so why should you consider it? Probably, because you can get quite a lot for your hard-earned dough. Fancy a brand-new, British-built small family car loaded with satnav, climate and cruise control, Bluetooth, rain sensing wipers, alloy wheels and that all-important DAB radio (for listening to the cricket) all for around £10 or £11k (more about the price later)? In addition, despite being discontinued, the Note still looks fresh and modern. And you get all this from a mainstream manufacturer with a reputation for reliability. OK, “small family car” may be a bit of a stretch (unless you have a small family) but interior space is one of the Note’s aces; it’s like a mini-MPV complete with a higher than average seating position and good visibility. Although it is only slightly bigger than Polo- and Fiesta- sized superminis, it has oodles of rear legroom and a boot which is bigger than a Ford Focus’s. Plus, the rear seat slides forward to create even more space for all the family’s paraphernalia – provided the kids have short legs.
So what’s it like to drive? Well, let’s not get carried away here, this is a good car not a great car. About three weeks ago, I delivered a newly-registered Note from West London to Swindon, a distance of about 80 miles. This was a higher spec Note Acenta Premium with all the aforementioned toys but with the budget engine option – a 1.2 litre petrol motor (80hp) with no turbo- or supercharger magic. In addition to the spacious interior, two positive things struck me about the Note. Firstly, the base cushion of the driver’s seat was particularly comfortable because it felt slightly softer than the norm. Is it me or are most car seats a little on the firm side? Maybe I should exercise less and gain a bit of padding. Secondly, it had smart and beautifully big, clear and crisply lit instruments – way better than a lot of much more expensive cars. The instrument cluster also looked bang up to date thanks to a swanky line of soft blue mood lighting following the contours along the top of the dials (this does dim when you put the lights on which is a good thing). So maybe there is a bit of pizzazz after all, although the rest of the interior interior is more functional (that’s a euphemism for a bit ordinary but inoffensive although the heating controls laid out in a circular arrangement are a bit naff).
Now to the not so good points (I won’t call them bad points). The Note is a bit soft and wobbly around the bends, so the Note would not strike a chord with keen drivers because it could not be pushed through corners with much verve (or even pizzazz). Not quite man and Note in perfect harmony. On the flip side, the ride is reasonable – better than the larger and bumpier Nissan Juke. The 1.2 engine is probably the weakest point. On the motorway, it cruises along happily and quietly once you have reached 70mph although road noise is a bit intrusive. However, reaching that cruising speed will take a while and motorway inclines may require you to drop a cog (a five speed manual box, by the way). On A roads, the Note bowls along nicely at 50 or 60mph but overtaking is probably out of the question unless you’re behind a tractor, milk float, James May or a pedestrian.
But fear not – if you otherwise like the sound of the Note, other engines are available. I would have been interested to try the 1.2 supercharged petrol engine (98hp). Intriguing. Also on offer is the ubiquitous Renault 1.5 turbo diesel engine in 90hp form. This latter power plant provides sterling service in the likes of the Renault Captur so would be a safe and frugal bet in the Note. However, if all you want is no-nonsense, reasonably comfortable transport to get you from A to B before the end of next week, then the normal 1.2 petrol engine may be good enough for you. Incidentally, it did just over 50 mpg on my 80 mile trip from London to Swindon.
Now back to the price. If you look on the used car (“Cared4”!?) section of the Nissan UK website, you will find plenty of the following all with delivery miles only:-
1.2 (80hp) petrol Acenta Premium for between £9495 and £10495;
1.5 diesel Acenta Premium for between £9995 and £11495;
1.2 supercharged (98hp) petrol Acenta Premium for between £10,995 and £12995 (most of these are automatics).
Thursday: BMW X5 Xdrive 40e M Sport plug-in hybrid, Leicester to Kettering, Northants; second BMW X5 Xdrive 40e M Sport plug-in hybrid, Kettering to Leicester
Friday: Jaguar XF S (3 litre) Portfolio D Sportbrake and Range Rover 4.4 SDV8 Autobiography, Leicester to Rutland County Showground, Oakham, Rutland
Yes, that’s only two days. I had another job on Wednesday but ended up not driving a car or van. A group of us went by minibus to collect some cars and deliver them to somewhere nearer the equator (in Hampshire). However, my allocated car had damaged paintwork and wasn’t going anywhere so I had to head for home by train. Annoyingly, I hadn’t bothered to bring a book with me because on group jobs, when we are taken to and from a job by chase vehicle, there is always entertainment in the form of endless witty banter and heckling the driver of the chase car or minibus. It is amazing how we all still laugh at highly original quips such as “I wouldn’t have come this way” (when stuck in a traffic jam), “Are we nearly there yet?” (five minutes after starting the journey) and “So the brakes work then” (after coming to a standstill in overly sharpish fashion).
But on my unexpected three and a half hour train journey home on Wednesday there would be no verbal entertainment and I had no book (I love reading and it’s a good thing to do on trains). However, I did have my other two favourite train journey pastimes to fall back on. These are: 1) enjoying the beautiful British countryside (and occasional interesting man-made landmark) from the vantage point of the train window and 2) applying my mind to the consideration of life’s important issues. The latter may be my version of mindfulness although I don’t really know what mindfulness is but it seems popular these days. The good thing with these two activities is that they can be enjoyed at the same time. Despite my gender disadvantage, even I can manage this bit of multi-tasking and, incredibly, I am also capable of simultaneously consuming sandwiches. So, as I gaze out of the train window munching a carefully crafted (by my own hand) tuna salad sarnie, I ponder such weighty questions as:-
How many words do the Inuit have for pesto?
Does Ray Mears have a house?
Why does the BBC’s One Show always start 2 minutes before its scheduled start time? (It does – always. Not that I actually care).
What is an Experian credit score and do I really need one?
What on earth is mindfulness?
How often does Ray Mears have a wash?
Did I close the front door properly?
Why do celebrities feel it imperative to give their kids stupid names?
Does anyone think that Marmite is, well, just sort of OK?
Will self-driving cars get road rage?
Has Ray Mears ever had a Big Mac and fries?
Is Judith Chalmers still orange?
Why do blondes dye their roots a darker colour?
Are we nearly there yet?
If you put Ray Mears and Bear Grylls together in the same room (or tent) would they scratch each other’s eyes out?
If you drink orange squash and milk will you really die? (This was a commonly held belief when I was a kid. I’m 53 and still haven’t dared to try it. I think about it a lot though.)
What does go through the mind of middle lane hoggers on the motorway?? Why do they think it’s the correct way to drive? Are they completely oblivious to the chaos they are causing as they bumble along in their own little world? They are probably pondering one or more of the questions above. But please, there is a time and a place – the place being a train, not the middle lane of the M1.
So you see, there is plenty to do in order to occupy yourself when on a train. And no, I don’t have an obsession with well-known TV wilderness expert, Ray Mears but when you’re staring at all that countryside, outdoorsy stuff sort of springs to mind.
For those missing more car content from this and my last post, here are a couple of blatantly gratuitous photos from my motoring week. One from a small classic car meet I went to on Tuesday evening in the sleepy town of Market Bosworth (of King Richard III infamy). The other from the Rutland County Showground where I took the Jaguar XF and Range Rover in preparation for this Sunday’s county show. Guess which one’s which.
Last Wednesday, when I had the day off from driving round the country, I, er, drove around the country. This time with my wife and we headed to Hidcote Manor Garden, a National Trust property near Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire (on the northern edge of the Cotswolds). I have mentioned the National Trust in a few of my posts and not everybody will know what it is, notably foreign readers (I know there are some – thank you so much for dropping by my blog!!). So, I have added a section further on in this post telling you what the National Trust is all about. If you are visiting the UK for an extended period of time and you are interested in historic buildings and gardens, becoming a member of the National Trust may be something to consider – it could save you money on admission charges.
Back to Hidcote Manor Garden which according to a website called Great British Gardens is a top ten British garden and “one of the greatest in England”. Now, gardening is not my thing; mowing the lawn, trimming hedges and digging where I’m told is about as green fingered as I get. But admiring someone else’s handiwork is a different deal, especially when it is hidden away in the depths of beautiful English countryside and lit up by glorious sunshine. Hidcote Manor Garden was created in the early decades of the 20th century, around a 17th century manor house, by a well-travelled horticulturalist, Major Lawrence Johnson.
Near the house, the gardens are divided into several “outdoor rooms” each with a different feel. The gardens then open out into larger spaces, ending in some places at a ha-ha with far reaching views over the neighbouring countryside. There are some formal lines, man-made features and clean cut topiary (how do they do topiary? It’s so clever. Cutting hedge technology, no doubt) but just enough to counter-balance the many exuberantly overflowing informal borders that give the gardens a mostly tumbledown air (in a good way). During our visit last week, there were no real “riots of colour” (other than acres of vibrant greens) but splashes of subtle hues with just the occasional bright red or orange catching your eye. All very calming. Since my gardening vocabulary extends only marginally beyond that of Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men (flobadob, Little Weed), I’ll leave the photos of Hidcote to do the rest of the talking about the gardens.
Our day out was complemented by a tasty light lunch in the National Trust café in the company of my wife’s best friend from school days (who lives not far from Hidcote – in the quaint Worcestershire village of Inkberrow which I described in an earlier post). We then sat for a while in the shade of a tree looking out across the Cotswolds eating ice cream. Not bad.
As promised, there are a few words about the National Trust after the photos!
THE NATIONAL TRUST
We have been members of the National Trust for many years now and feel we have certainly had our money’s worth. It is an organisation dedicated to preserving cultural heritage and areas of natural beauty in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (there is also a National Trust for Scotland). There are about 500(!) places run by the National Trust and membership also gives you access to the National Trust for Scotland. On the National Trust website (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/) you can search for NT places to visit by county, town, postcode or place or view them on a map (remember to zoom in to your particular area of interest!).
The NT owns/preserves buildings of historical, architectural, industrial and/or social interest and also areas of countryside such as forest, woodland and coastline (most notably, Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland). As well as stately homes, abbeys, gardens and castles, the NT owns properties as diverse as a restored water mill in the centre of Winchester, a Victorian workhouse in Southwell (the guided tour was fascinating), a Roman gold mine in Wales and a lighthouse near Sunderland. Individual admission prices for non-members vary from property to property but can be around £15 per adult for a large house and garden such as Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. Smaller properties will be cheaper – for example, the fabulous Corfe Castle is £9.90 per adult and the Winchester watermill, £4. However, if you are a member, you get in to all these properties for free! Currently, joint membership for two adults costs £108 for 12 months (single adult £64.80, young person [25 and under] £32.40 and family membership just £114.60). This includes free entry not only to NT properties but also stand-alone NT-owned car parks (often found at the coast). Areas of countryside owned by the National Trust are usually free to access. So, if you plan to visit, say, four to six larger NT properties within a 12 month period, becoming a member could save you money. You can join the National Trust at any NT property.
Because the properties are free for members, we often use them as a place to break a long journey in preference to a motorway service station, even if we have no intention of doing the full tour of the property in question. Most properties have good quality restaurants and/or cafés, a shop (sometimes a second-hand bookshop and/or garden shop as well) and, very importantly, decent toilets!
If you are coming to the UK but to visit Scotland only, then I’m guessing membership of the National Trust for Scotland (http://www.nts.org.uk/Home/) may be cheaper but I have not researched this.